Overview of the Book of Proverbs

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Overview of the Book of Proverbs
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Overview of the Book of Proverbs

Author: Various, including Solomon, Hezekiah, Agur, Lemuel, and others.

Purpose:

To provide a resource for teaching wisdom to young people, primarily for the royal family and secondarily for all other families in Israel.

Date: 960-686 B.C.

Key Truths:

  • God is the source of all wisdom, and he has revealed wisdom for humans to learn.
  • Human wisdom can be gained only in the context of reverence for God.
  • Young people need instruction from older and wiser fathers and mothers.
  • The leaders of God's people especially must be schooled in the ways of wisdom.

Author:

Several authors are mentioned in the book of Proverbs: Solomon (Prov. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1), Hezekiah (Prov. 25:1), Agur (Prov. 30:1), and Lemuel (Prov. 31:1). Some interpreters, however, have argued that the sections attributed to Solomon were actually written by others under his name. Yet the case for accepting the Solomonic authorship of Proverbs 1-24 is strong in at least five ways:

(1) In addition to the claims of the book, the Scriptures testify that Solomon wrote many proverbs (1 Kings 4:29-34). Further, Old Testament references to Solomon's unsurpassed wisdom are numerous (1 Kings 3:5-14; 4:29-34; 5:7,12; 10:1-9, 23-24; 11:41; 2 Chron. 1:7-12; 9:1-8, 22-23), and writing and compiling various proverbs is entirely consistent with that characterization.

(2) Proverbs is striking similar in structure and content to comparable wisdom literature from Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Levant that dates from before the time of Solomon. For example, Egyptian wisdom instruction exists in two types. One type includes a title and maxims (cf. Prov. 24:23-35); the other type includes a long title (Prov. 1:1), preamble/prologue (Prov. 1:2-9:18), short title (Prov. 10:1), and maxims (Prov. 10:2-22:16). These similarities suggest a date for Proverbs during Israel's monarchy. The greatest similarities in form and content exist between Proverbs 22:16-24:22 and the Egyptian "Wisdom of Amenemope," which is roughly contemporary with the time of Solomon.

(3) It is reasonable to assume that the literature of various nations was known in Israel during the time of Solomon's extensive international trade. Egyptian archives (c. 1350 B.C.) contain cuneiform literary texts from Babylon that scribes used when preparing for foreign diplomatic service. We may assume that foreign literary works also reached Israel for similar reasons. It would have been fitting for the brilliant Solomon to familiarize himself with Egyptian instruction in this way.

(4) The attributions to Solomon (Prov. 1:1; 10:1; 25:1) - as well as to King Hezekiah (Prov. 25:1) and to King Lemuel (Prov. 31:1) - are entirely consistent with the practices of royalty in the ancient Near East, where kings sponsored wisdom and wisdom supported kings. Many proverbs speak not only about kings and courtiers but also to and for them. In sum, Wisdom Literature of the sort found in Proverbs was typically at home in the royal court. No better candidate than Solomon fits this setting.

(5) Stylistic features also favor acceptance of Solomon as the author of chapters 1-24 and of the proverbs in chapters 25-29. Binary (two-line) parallelism is clearly attested both in Wisdom Literature and in other genres from the third millennium B.C. to well into the first millennium B.C. After 500 B.C., the popularity of binary parallelism began to wane in wisdom texts, both in Egyptian and in Aramaic literature.

Time and Place of Writing:

King Solomon (see "Introduction: Author") began to reign in approximately 970 B.C., earlier if he held a co-regency with David (see note on 1 Kings 2:11). Assuming that Solomon reigned some years before the Lord granted him wisdom (cf. 1 Kings 2-3), and at least some time for his study and compilation of his proverbs, an early date for the portions of the book attributed to Solomon can be set around 960 B.C. Hezekiah, in turn, reigned until 687/86 B.C., setting the latest date for the portions of the book compiled under his rule. Lemuel is otherwise unknown (see note on Prov. 31:1), so reference to him does not help establish the date of composition.

The setting of the royal court for the writing of Proverbs should be distinguished from the settings of its dissemination. Unlike some other ancient Near Eastern wisdom literature, Proverbs names no explicit addressee or class in its title. Presumably, the author intended for the book to be used by everyone, anticipating that its maxims would be taught in godly homes. Solomon intended to transmit his wisdom to Israel's youths by putting his proverbs into the mouths of godly parents (Prov. 1:8), even as Moses had advocated dissemination of the law in the home (Deut. 6:7-9). The references to the father and his son(s) in the book's prologue are best taken literally. Egyptian wisdom books are addressed to the author's sons, never to unrelated students. References to the mother as a teacher of both the Mosaic Law (cf. Deut. 6:7-9) and Solomon's proverbs also establish a home setting (see Exod. 20:12; Lev. 19:3; Deut. 5:16; 6:6-9; 21:18-21; Prov. 4:3; 6:20; 10:1; 15:20; 23:22, 24-25; 29:15; 31:1, 26-28; Luke 2:51; 2 Tim. 1:5; 3:14). The use of Proverbs in home education finds further corroboration in Proverbs 4:1-9, where the godly family-including grandfather, father, mother, and son-is figuratively represented as transmitting the family's spiritual inheritance.

Purpose and Distinctives:

Whereas the historical books trace the development of the Kingdom of God through covenants with Israel, Biblical Wisdom Literature never explicitly mentions Israel's election or covenants and contains little acknowledgment of the historical details of Israel's faith. Nevertheless, it can be easily integrated with Israel's historical faith by their common appeal to the "fear of the LORD" (cf. Deut. 6:5; Josh. 24:14; Prov. 1:7). "The LORD" is God's name that expresses his personal commitment to Israel (Gen. 12:8; Exod. 3:15; 6:2-8). To "fear" him means to submit to his revealed will, whether voiced by Moses or Solomon, because one trusts him to keep his promises of life for the faithful and his threats of death for the unfaithful. Moses, Solomon, and the prophets each sought to establish God's rule. Although the theology of Proverbs complements the unified historical orientation of other parts of the Old Testament, Proverbs focuses more on everyday life than on history, more on the usual than on the unique, more on the individual (although not outside the context of social relationships) than on the nation, more on personal experience than on sacred tradition.

Unfortunately, Proverbs is often misunderstood to promise success, health, happiness and wealth to those who follow its teaching. See Proverbs 3:1-10 and "Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books." While it does describe prosperity as a blessing of wisdom, many of the benefits mentioned are little more than observations of the normal course of events. The sober person rather than the drunkard (see Prov. 23:29-35), the cool-tempered person rather than the hotheaded one (Prov. 15:18; 19:19; 22:24; 29:22), and the diligent rather than the indolent typically experience health and wealth.

Second, various proverbs qualify each other. Although many proverbs speak of positive benefits for the righteous and judgment for the wicked, many others assert or imply that the wicked prosper while the innocent suffer. For example, Proverbs 10:2 teaches that the wicked person has treasures gained by wickedness (i.e., at the expense of the righteous), but the very next proverb (Prov. 10:3) states that the wicked person's craving will be frustrated.

Taken in their entirety, the proverbs teach that the wicked prosper for a season (Prov. 10:2a) but that in the end their riches will not deliver them from death (Prov. 10:2b). In contrast, the righteous, who at present are afflicted by the wicked, will finally be delivered from death (Prov. 10:2b) and be fully satisfied (Prov. 10:3a). Similarly, the several "better than" proverbs (e.g., "Better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice," Prov. 16:8) assume the reality that for the moment the wicked, rather than the righteous, enjoy material blessings (cf. Prov. 16:19; 17:1; 19:1, 22; 21:9, 19; 22:1; 25:24; 28:6; Psa. 37:16; Eccl. 4:6). To understand what a single proverb means or how it is true, it must be read within the context of the whole book, not in isolation.

Third, as a primer on morality to encourage young people to righteous living, Proverbs appropriately focuses on the rise of the righteous rather than on the difficulties the righteous face. For instance, the maxim "Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again, but the wicked are brought down by calamity" (Prov. 24:16) downplays the harsh reality that the righteous may at times be destroyed in favor of the more positive hope that they will rise. By contrast, Job and Ecclesiastes focus on the sufferings of the righteous before they rise in the end.

Fourth, some texts explicitly teach that the righteous enjoy a blessed future that outlasts death (cf. Prov. 12:28; 14:32; 23:17). The "tree of life" in Proverbs figuratively represents perpetual healing that ensures eternal life (Prov. 3:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4; cf. Gen. 2:9; 3:24). The book's concept of justice demands such a hope. The opening situation depicted in the father's first lecture resembles the first recorded situation of fallen humanity outside of the Garden of Eden. Even as Cain murdered the righteous Abel, sending him to a premature death in contrast to his own natural life span, so a traveler's innocent "blood" (Prov. 1:11) is dispatched to a premature death by venal sinners (Prov. 1:10-19). For justice to be accomplished, as Proverbs assures the reader it will be (e.g., Prov. 3:31-35; 16:4-5), it must be executed in some realm beyond present human experience.

Christ in Proverbs:

Proverbs, like the Law of Moses, bears witness to Christ by portraying his person and work. In the law, we see the righteous and holy person and the work of that son of Abraham who would inherit God's covenant blessings and mediate them to all nations. In Proverbs (and in the Wisdom Literature as a whole) we see the discernment and work of the wise disciple. Only the Lord Jesus completely fulfills this vision. Proverbs, in conjunction with all the Wisdom Literature, also reveals that likeness into which all true Israel will be conformed by grace through faith: the likeness of Jesus, the wisdom of God incarnate (1 Cor. 1:24, 30; Col. 2:2-3).

Introduction Material:

Introduction to the Poetic and Wisdom Books

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).